Archive for August, 2012
Thursday, August 30th, 2012
By William Tucker
If a butterfly flaps its wings in Fukushima, does that mean we have to give up nuclear energy in the United States?
That’s the question posed by the study conducted by a group of Japanese scientists and reported in Nature, that they had found a high degree of pale grass blue butterflies suffering from a high degree of genetic mutations, including abnormally developed legs, dented eyes, deformed wing shapes and changes in color and spot patterns on their wings. The rate of mutations was correlated with the distance from the Fukushima reactors and therefore attributed to radiation released during the accident 18 months ago.
To confirm these findings, the researchers exposed butterflies in the laboratory to healthy doses of radiation and found the same genetic mutations. All this was taken as a portend of far worse things that may be taking shape in the genes of other creatures exposed to Fukushima radiation – including human beings.
So what to make of all this? There’s been a lot written on the subject since the report came out three weeks ago. After surveying a good part of it, including a very spirited discussion on Rod Adams’ Atomic Insights blog, I would say that while there might be some substance to the study, it’s basically another case where the public is being stampeded again by the pervasive fear of anything “nuclear.”
The most immediate criticism is that butterflies and other insects are particularly susceptible to radiation damage and that none of this has anything to do with human beings. That is true. Insects live only a few short months at most and are very susceptible to genetic changes. That’s why we do experiments with fruit flies. Even other mammals have much greater defenses against genetic damage.
But that’s not the only problem. First, as commenters on Rod Adams site note, posting on nature.com, where the study was introduced, is not the same as being published in the prestigious Nature magazine. Nature.com is a sort of quickie version designed to get papers before the public rapidly but not with the kind of vetting that takes place in the magazine.
Second, as Adams himself notes, the reproducibility of results is becoming a major problem in science.
An article by Sharon Begley circulated by Reuters that appeared in several newspapers over the last few days outlines the depth of this problem.
According to Begley a new company called Science Exchange has launched a service called the “Reproducibility Initiative” aimed at testing the trustworthiness of published scientific papers. . . . This project has sprung from the realization that the scientific literature is awash with false findings and erroneous conclusions. . . .Last year, she reports, Bayer Healthcare found its labs could not reproduce 75% of the published findings it tested in a search to find new leads in cancer, cardiovascular and reproductive health. In March of this year a cancer research firm, Amgen reported that when they tried to replicate 53 prominent studies with the intention of building new treatment protocols, they could confirm the results of six only.
In a long and thorough analysis posted on Nuclear Diner, Susan Voss has looked carefully at the butterfly study and found some highly questionable aspects. She notes that the sampling was extraordinarily small. In one instance, the authors reported “20% of the wings from female butterflies at Fukushima have abnormalities.” That turned out to be a sampling of five butterflies of which one was judged abnormal.
Most interesting was that the authors used two standards for measuring presumed exposure to radiation from the accident. One was the actual radiation readings at the site of collection. The other was the distance of the site from the Fukushima plant. It turned out that with actual radiation readings there was no correlation with the rate of mutation in the second generation. Only distance showed some positive results. So the authors decided to ignore the radiation figures. Here is the actual sentence from the paper:
Somewhat unexpectedly, the half-eclosion time and half-pupation time were correlated with the distance from the NPP but not with the ground radiation dose (data not shown). The reason for this outcome is not apparent, but it may be that distance values are more resistant to measurement deviations.
But deciding that distance is more important than radiation measures because the results look better is simply assuming that which is supposed to be proved.
Altogether, the results of the butterfly study are sketchy at best. The subject deserves a much more thorough examination. As Adams and others point out, the study is typical of much “advocacy science,” where the authors depend much more on public fears of nuclear than the quality of their results.
Monday, August 27th, 2012
By William Tucker
Although the newspapers haven’t been paying much attention lately, the United States and China seem to be on the verge of a trade war that could have huge implications for the world economy.
Let’s not scoff at trade wars. Although they’re easy to initiate, they’re awfully difficult to halt once they get started. People still remember the Stock Market Crash of 1929 as the start of the Great Depression but a couple of years ago, the late Bob Bartley, the great editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal, ran a series of columns showing clearly that it was the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Bill of 1930 that turned what might have been just a cyclical downturn into a decade-long horror. How did Smoot-Hawley get started? A couple of Western Congressman wanted to protect the agricultural crops in their home states. President Herbert Hoover called a special session of Congress and before anybody knew it, every Senator and Representative from every state in the union had added something to the Christmas tree. The stock market nosedived, knowing where all this was leading, and before it was over the Great Depression had begun.
Every economist in the world knows right now that we are teetering on the edge of such another conflagration. The world economy is in a slump and threatening to get worse. Japan has been in the doldrums for twenty years. Europe is suffering a meltdown. The U.S. is in a four-year funk. China and India have been the locomotive of the world economy but now China is showing serious signs of slowing down. Will everybody stay calm and try to ride out the storm? Or will the recriminations begin and countries start rocking the boat so that the whole world economy may go under?
Well, the rocking has already begun and the boat is being tipped by – wouldn’t you know it – good old solar energy.
Ah yes, solar energy, the wave of the future that is sure to arrive soon except that it’s still not economical and so our government has to subsidize it right now because it’s eventually going to be the wave of the future and then we’ll become the solar capital of the world.
What government hasn’t fallen for that line? Europe has been practicing “feed-in tariffs” – which is just a fancy name for price supports – for more than a decade. Spain almost bankrupted itself trying to nurture an infant solar industry. Germany thinks it’s going to get rid of nuclear power and run itself on that country’s notoriously weak sunshine. Portugal, Italy, Greece – they all think exporting solar panels will be the cure for their ailing economies.
Here in the United States, of course, we have the Production Tax Credit, Renewable Portfolio Mandates, government loan guarantees (a la Solyndra) and all sorts of other gimmicks for trying to promote solar. President Obama recently decided to utilize about 100 square miles of the Mojave Desert for a great solar experiment because “We Can’t Wait” for the market to tell us that solar is practical. And in China? Well, everything in China is pretty much run by the government, so you can imagine how much the industry is being supported there.
And so the first shots have been fired. Six months ago President Obama yielded to the solar industry and placed a 31 percent tariff on solar panels from China. The charge was that China was “overproducing” and “dumping” panels on the US. China immediately retaliated by pointing out the many solar subsidies in this country and filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization saying we are dumping polysilicon on them. China too has its domestic industries that want protection.
Now Europe has joined the fray. Germany thought by guaranteeing a high price to vendors of solar electricity that it would be fostering a domestic industry. Instead, it found it was subsidizing China. So they have cried “foul” and enlisted 24 other European manufacturers to file their own complaint with the European Trade Commission. Europe now constitutes 60 percent of China’s market and the consequences could be devastating. To top it off, India is now getting into the fray.
So there we have it. The pieces are all in place for an international brawl that could bring down the world economy. Once the barricades have been erected for solar manufacturers, how long will it be before other industries ask for protection as well? Congressmen Smoot and Hawley must be celebrating in their graves. What a wonderful legacy this will make for good old clean-and-green solar power.
As the Institute for Energy Research pointed out again last week, solar electricity remains ridiculously impractical, almost twice as expensive as other forms of generation. Nor is this ever going to change. The marginal improvements made in reducing costs will continue to be swamped by the irreducible demands for the hundreds of square miles of territory in sunny climates that will be necessary to put it into practice. Every country will have to continue subsidizing solar energy and therefore every country will be able to accuse every other country of cheating at the game.
Here’s a better idea. Why don’t we all put our minds to building nuclear reactors instead? Permanent government support won’t be necessary and in the end we’ll have something substantial to show for our efforts as well.
Thursday, August 23rd, 2012
By William Tucker
I’ve spent many happy hours in the company of Ted Rockwell and consider him a national treasure. Therefore it was somewhat disconcerting to read Rod Adams’ blog and find Ted tearing his hair over my last column.
The sentence that touched him off was one I wrote about hormesis in commenting on Robert Muller’s excellent Wall Street Journal article:
Muller shuns the “hormesis” hypothesis – the theory that low levels of radiation actually inoculate people against cancer by stimulating the body’s defense mechanisms. That idea is not yet widely proven (although there’s lots of supporting evidence) and it’s a little bit too much for the public to swallow right now. You can’t talk hormesis without sounding like a zonked-out weirdo who’s been brainwashed by the nuclear industry.
I’m going to give Ted his full due here and then make one comment at the end. Here’s what he had to say:
I’m really frustrated! I’ve been involved with radiation protection since I edited The Shielding Manual in 1956. And with radiation, since I wrote “Frontier Life Among the Atom Splitters” for the SatEvePost (Dec 1, 1945). Continuously since then, I’ve been told that we should never mention hormesis, never try to tell people that radiation behaves like everything else in the world: a little is beneficial, too much is harmful. Like sunshine, like exercise, like all those nasty poisons in our daily vitamins. I’ve been writing, and lecturing, and talking to the person next to me on the airplane. And I’ve never met anyone who had trouble understanding or believing that simple concept. Yet “the experts” keep proclaiming that, although we all understand and believe it ourselves (how can you deny the data?), we shouldn’t try to tell it to the public or the Congress or the media.
It’s time to knock off that destructive behavior. Its only function is to protect persons who believe their job depends on scaring people. Radiation protection is an honorable function, and done right, it can help us find ways to operate more profitably, not less. But we in the nuclear community have continually bad-mouthed ourselves and our profession. It’s time to stop it.
There is a vast body of good scientific evidence that in the dose range of interest, more radiation is beneficial. But a great deal of effort has gone into hiding that fact. The relevant policy-setting reports like NCRP-136 and -121 concede that the data demonstrate hormesis, but they recommend it would be “prudent” to assume the opposite. It’s not science, but a strange sense of prudence, that leads people to want to hide hormesis.
As James Muckerheide documented years ago, “There Has Never Been a Time That the Benefits of Low-Dose Ionizing Radiation Were Not Known.” T.D. Luckey’s canonical works on Radiation Hormesis in 1980 and 1991 documented some 3000 cases of hormesis. Sakamoto, Hattori and others have been healing people with half-body irradiation. The literature covered in the 2012 ANS President’s Special Plenary published a 200-page summary report on the subject. The most important news about the terrifying subject of nuclear radiation is that it’s good for you. When do we lift the ban on telling people that?
Now I really can’t disagree with Ted on anything. My only concern is that I find it almost impossible to get to first base with people who are frightened about nuclear radiation if I start talking about hormesis. They think it’s some kind of joke or worse. For instance, during the week of Fukushima I did a morning show interview on Fox News. Imus in the Morning is right upstairs and when they heard me on TV one of the producers invited me up to speak on the radio show as well. I was standing outside the studio waiting to go on when somebody mentioned to Imus that the guy waiting outside says that nuclear radiation isn’t all that dangerous and might even be slightly beneficial. Imus blew up and refused to put me on the show. Instead, he went with his wife who is one of these self-taught experts who runs around telling everyone that nuclear radiation is killing their children.
So what are we going to do? I visited the Free Enterprise Health Mine in Montana a few years ago and spent a week talking with people who have spent twenty years exposing themselves to 40 times the EPA “level of concern” and say they feel much better for it – good enough to keep coming back every year and spending a couple of hundred dollars more. I know there’s a whole compendium of evidence in support of hormesis and people who are living proof of it. It’s just my experience that when you start telling people radiation may be beneficial, you lose them completely.
Well, maybe Ted is right. Maybe we should just preach hormesis and say the heck with it. I still think the best strategy, though, is some kind of dramatic, Greenpeace-like demonstration. Rod Adams has already signed up for spending a week in the evacuation zone of Fukushima. Anyone else interested? Or how about persuading some movie star to visit the Free Enterprise Mine and soak up a healthy dose of radon with the cameras rolling? One way or another, we need something dramatic. Reasonable discussion doesn’t seem to lead very far.
Tuesday, August 21st, 2012
By William Tucker
Dr. Richard Muller is a Berkeley physics professor with a best-selling book entitled Energy for Future President: The Science Behind the Headlines. For that reason perhaps, he is not afraid to speak up about the enormous public tragedy that is unfolding in Japan and elsewhere around the world over exaggerated fear of nuclear radiation.
In a lengthy front-page piece in the “Review” section of The Wall Street Journal this weekend, Muller picks apart the fears and obfuscations still surrounding the accident Fukushima. He isn’t saying anything different from what Ted Rockwell and other radiation experts have been saying for the past year, but Muller has a public forum and respectability and that may make a difference.
Muller points out the most obvious thing about radiation – it is everywhere and the minor amounts that are the residue of Fukushima are well within the range of variations throughout the world. He uses the example of Denver, where high altitude and proximity to the uranium-laden Rocky Mountains produce radiation exposure that is twice the background level of most other parts of the U.S. and 50 percent higher than what we generally receive from all sources, natural and medical. Applying the “no safe dose” hypothesis – the favorite tool of radiation fear-mongers –would mean that cancer rates in Denver should be higher than the rest of the United States. Yet they are distinctly lower.
What does this suggest? Muller shuns the “hormesis” hypothesis – the theory that low levels of radiation actually inoculate people against cancer by stimulating the body’s defense mechanisms. That idea is not yet widely proven (although there’s lots of supporting evidence) and it’s a little bit too much for the public to swallow right now. You can’t talk hormesis without sounding like a zonked-out weirdo who’s been brainwashed by the nuclear industry.
But Muller points out the obvious. The idea that every little bit of radiation exposure is the equivalent to a dose of cancer is, as he writes, “a theory that has never been tested, will not be tested in the foreseeable future, and . . is known to fail for leukemia.” The U.S. Academy of Sciences and other regulatory bodies have adopted the linear-no-threshold hypothesis on the grounds that “you can’t be too safe” when it comes to radiation, but they readily ignore its implications:
The International Commission on Radiological Protection recommends evacuation of a locality whenever the excess radiation does exceeds .1 rem per year. But that’s one-third of what I call the “Denver dose.” Applied strictly, the ICRP standard would seem to require the immediate evacuation of Denver.
Nonetheless, on the basis of this standard thousands of people have been forced out of their homes. As Muller says, “The long-term evacuation of Fukushima [has] probably caused[d] more harm than good.”
Even more damaging has been the abandonment of nuclear energy, both in Japan and elsewhere:
The great tragedy of the Fukushima accident is that Japan shut down all its nuclear reactors. Even though officials have now turned two back on, the hardships and economic disruption induced by this policy will be enormous and will dwarf any danger from the reactors themselves.
Japan’s economy is in a nosedive. Factories are moving to the Philippines in search of cheaper electricity. The country’s always healthy trade balance has reversed and carbon emissions have skyrocketed.
This panic has also spread to Germany, where even a trained physicist like Angela Merkel has somehow convinced herself that a modern industrial nation can power itself on windmills. Last week Germany announced the opening of two state-of-the-art coal plants. This indicates where Germany’s “green” effort is really going.
It’s encouraging to see an expert such as Muller speaking up on what is a very unpopular issue. Still, I don’t think such experts are going to have much impact until the radiation community starts adopting the tactics of Greenpeace, which is, after all, the world’s greatest PR firm.
I’d like to see a delegation of radiation experts volunteer to go over to Japan and live in the Evacuation Zone for a month to demonstrate to the public just how exaggerated the fears of nuclear radiation really are. As Muller points out, the excess dose of radiation you would get in leaving the confines of Berkeley for the dangers of the Evacuation Zone would be one-third what you would experience in moving from Berkeley to Denver. Maybe a joint delegation from Berkeley and the University of Colorado could lead the expedition.
Thursday, August 16th, 2012
By Edward Davis and David C. Blee
The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) August 7, 2012 order to defer any final agency action approving the issuance of new reactor licenses or to grant new license renewals for existing operating reactors — in response to a Federal Appeals Court remand of the agency’s existing waste confidence rule — does not represent the draconian “Full-Stop” that the some of the industry’s opponents claim.
Under the order, the agency will continue with its technical and licensing reviews while holding any final decisions in abeyance until the NRC has developed and completed its work responsive to the Court’s remand. Accordingly, the Order could impact very few, if any, near-term combined license (COL) applications. Moreover, under the NRC’s rules for license renewals, no operating plant would be directly affected where a timely renewal license application has already been submitted to NRC. Current spent fuel storage is certainly safe and not in question.
Notwithstanding, there have been only rare occasions where similar orders have been issued by the NRC. Among them was the Calvert Cliffs Federal Appeals Court Decision in 1971 to require compliance with the newly enacted National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the preparation of environmental impact statements to accompany new reactor licensing and following the Three Mile Accident (TMI).
Moreover, any failure to resolve the waste confidence issue in a timely manner has the potential to delay new-term COLs, cloud license renewals and chill investor confidence in U.S. nuclear energy at a pivotal time.
As such, the NRC’s Order and the Court’s remand are matters to be taken seriously. At the same time, they offer a window of opportunity to chart a path-forward to resolve the back-end of the fuel cycle dilemma, which has plagued U.S. nuclear energy since its infancy. The Reid-Jaczko four-year walk-in-the-wilderness prescription of just-leave-the waste-where-it-is was myopic at best. Given the stakes involved, a head-in-the-sand approach in light of this new challenge would be equal folly.
For over four decades, the industry has operated under a series of interlocking court and regulatory decisions that have benefited and fostered the continued use and development of nuclear energy in the U.S. Starting in the early 1970s, a number a significant legal actions were taken to force the NRC to make a determination when licensing new plants that the spent fuel and nuclear waste could be disposed of safely and permanently. In a 1979 Court of Appeals decision, known as Minnesota vs. NRC, it was found that the NRC was not required to find that such disposal capacity actually existed at the time of licensing of a new plant, only that a finding was necessary that NRC had “confidence” that a permanent repository would eventually be available when needed.
The Court in the Minnesota decision referenced the NRC's 1977 order denying a National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) petition for a "confidence" rulemaking:
"It is neither necessary nor reasonable for the Commission to insist on proof that a means of permanent waste disposal is on hand at the time reactor operation begins, so long as the Commission can be reasonably confident that permanent disposal (as distinguished from continued storage under surveillance) (emphasis added) can be accomplished safely when it is likely to become necessary. Reasonable progress towards the development of permanent disposal facilities is presently being accomplished. Under these circumstances a halt in licensing of nuclear power plants is not required to protect public health and safety."
However, the Minnesota Court case did give rise to what has been enshrined as the Waste Confidence Rule, which the NRC updates from time to time. The significance of this generic rule is that interveners cannot raise any questions in individual licensing proceedings as to whether the nuclear plant with its accumulation of spent fuel might one day become a de facto repository after its license expired because the Federal Government failed to successfully develop a repository.
In addition, by virtue of another generic rule, the so-called Uranium Fuel Cycle Rule and its related Table S-3, one that was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court, opponents cannot question the environmental releases assumed from a repository in individual plant environmental impact statements because NRC has assumed a “zero release” assumption as part of these assessments.
Despite these regulatory protections, the NRC under pressure did concede, as it does today, that the NRC will not continue to license reactors if it does not have reasonable confidence that spent fuel and nuclear waste can and will in due course be disposed of safely. And, specifically, this codified policy commitment relates to permanent disposal and not temporary surface storage.
The linkage between progress towards permanent disposal and continued reactor licensing is at the heart of today’s nuclear waste confidence impasse — one that cannot be resolved through efforts to site temporary storage facilities, notwithstanding how desirable those efforts may be in terms of moving spent fuel from nuclear power plant sites.
When the Obama Administration disbanded and defunded the DOE’s nuclear repository program while seeking to terminate the Yucca Mountain project, former NRC Chairman Gregory Jazcko pushed through an update of the Waste Confidence Rule based on the flawed premise that despite the Administration's efforts to terminate the only repository program that the nation has had over the past 30 years, the NRC still had "confidence” that somehow, some way a repository would materialize precisely when needed. In the meantime, the NRC found that spent fuel could be stored onsite safely for a total of 120 years — 60 years during operations followed by an additional 60 years after license expiration for the repository to become available.
Two states seeking to block license renewals and anti-nuclear groups who have had a long running feud with NRC over this issue saw an opportunity and pounced on this update and its “predicative” finding of confidence as a bridge too far and sued the NRC over the revised rule.
As a result of the Federal Appeals Court’s June 8th remand, the NRC must now go back and develop an environmental assessment of the implications of not having a repository. Based on oral arguments, Petitioners are seeking an expansive, multi-century analysis of the uncertainties, costs and effects of a repository and its potential failure and related consequences as well as the onsite effects of indefinitely storing spent fuel at reactor sites across the country. Such an assessment is analogous to the Environmental Protection Agency’s one-million-year repository dose standard for Yucca Mountain that took nearly a decade to address.
Ironically, the DOE in its 2002 Yucca Mountain EIS submitted to the NRC in connection with its license application did in fact make such an assessment of the potential environmental effects in its “No Action” Alternative and found that potential consequences of not having a repository could be quite significant.
This confluence is manifest destiny for the anti-nuclear community, which now believes it has finally opened up a Pandora’s Box that will force the NRC’s hand not to license new nuclear plants without a repository or even with just the reasonable prospect of one.
In writing the Court’s unanimous opinion in the Waste Confidence case, Chief Judge David B. Sentelle summed-up the paradox:
“The Commission apparently has no long-term plan other than hoping for a geologic repository. If the government continues to fail in its quest to establish one, then SNF will seemingly be stored on site at nuclear plants on a permanent basis. The Commission can and must assess the potential environmental effects of such failure.”
He also highlighted this dilemma during oral argument in responding to a suggestion by an NRC lawyer that the Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) recommendations were a basis of renewed confidence that there would be a repository sometime in the not too distant future:
“You just related the history of the law, the Congressional resolutions had required the construction of the Yucca Mountain site, and then you tell me that we should reason from the fact that the President killed the Yucca Mountain site and put in some other Commission that therefore there’s going to be a solution. If anything it sounds like this is one more time that the frustration of the Petitioners reflected reality. “
In short, without a repository, there can be no nuclear energy resurgence. What is required now is a concerted action not only by the NRC but also the Administration and the Congress to address the root cause of the waste confidence impasse and put the U.S. nuclear waste program back on track.
A good start would be for the NRC to restart the Yucca licensing process and not wait for a Court mandamus order to do so. Such action is supported by the recent vote 326 members of the House of Representatives to provide additional funding for the Yucca licensing process. In addition, the DOE should re-standup the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management in order to refocus efforts and develop a repository restart plan. Congress should appropriate the necessary funding to put the program back on track.
Progress on these fronts and on Yucca Mountain provides confidence that a repository can and will be available. It also provides a demonstration that there is a political will to resolve the siting issues and to carry out the law that Congress established
Mr. Davis is President of the Pegasus Group and a former President of the American Nuclear Energy Council. Mr. Blee is a former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Energy and Executive Director of the U.S. Nuclear Infrastructure Council.
Thursday, August 16th, 2012
By William Tucker
Mitt Romney has kicked off his campaign to win votes in the Upper Midwest Industrial Belt by visiting a coal plant in Ohio and calling coal “essential to our national strength.”
There are certainly plenty of votes to be had out there. President Obama has left himself vulnerable in coal country with his anti-coal campaign, spearheaded by the Environmental Protection Agency. In West Virginia, the nation’s premier coal state, the President lost 41 percent of the vote in this year’s primary to a Texas inmate who got on the ballot by paying a $2,500 filing fee.
In order to counteract the Romney offensive, President Obama has rushed out to Iowa to tout wind energy and all the jobs it has created, vilifying Romney for opposing the extension of wind’s tax credit. In seizing this issue, Obama has won the support of Iowa Republican Governor Terry Branstad, who brags about all the jobs windmills have created in his state. Even Karl Rove, who normally doesn’t agree with President Obama on much, believes there are too many votes in windmills to cede the issue to the Democrats.
So there you have it. America’s energy future is a contest between coal and wind. Which can create more jobs? If you think there’s a better option, you don’t have a place at the table. And that’s where nuclear stands today. Sure, there may be questions about potential accidents and the effects of radiation, but the real problem is this: Nuclear is so energy intensive that it doesn’t produce enough jobs to create a political constituency.
Why does coal still have such enormous political clout? The answer is simple. It requires so much mining and transportation of raw material that hundreds of thousands of workers – whole states, in fact – become involved in the task.
There are now 1300 coal mines in 27 states employing 88,000 workers. More than half a dozen of these states identify themselves as “coal states” – West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Colorado and Wyoming just fir a start. The state with the biggest coal reserves – Montana – hasn’t really started developing them yet. Next to farming, coal mining is most widely entrenched resource-based industry in the country.
There is good reason for all this job creation. A1000-MW coal plant must be resupplied by a 110-car unit train arriving every 30 hours. Almost half the railroad freight in the U.S. is coal. Economists say there’s a real question of whether the railroads actually own the coal companies or the coal companies own the railroads. In any case, all this produces huge work forces with powerful labor union backing.
Wind energy works the same way. Because each giant 45-story windmills produces only about 2 MW, thousands upon thousands will be required to produce electricity in commercial quantities. This creates a huge work force. The American Wind Energy Association claims 90,000 employees in the wind industry with more than 4,000 in California, Texas, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and North Dakota. Building out the transmission lines to carry this electricity to population centers will eventually employ thousands more. Wind is nothing if not labor intensive.
So how does nuclear do by comparison? According to the Uranium Producers of America, there are 13 uranium mines in the U.S. employing 1635 people. Their annual output was 16, 000 tons of uranium oxide – the equivalent of two coal trains leaving the Powder River Basin (where one now departs every eight minutes). Our domestic production of uranium has actually been suppressed over the last two decades because we have been using former Soviet weapons material for half our fuel in the Megatons to Megawatts program, although the pace may pick up when the treaty expires next year.
Worldwide there are only 46 uranium mines – as opposed to 450 coal mines in Kentucky alone. Recently the Russians have proposed supplying the entire world out of one uranium mine in Siberia. Nuclear’s great energy density has one glaring weakness – there is no possibility of building a huge mining and transport constituencies that can support the technology.
Uranium does require reprocessing and there are major facilities in Kentucky and Ohio. But even those hardly constitute more than a ripple in the two states’ economies. Traditionally, the only places where nuclear has gained a political foothold is those states that have national laboratories. New Mexico’s Democratic Senator Pete Domenici was long a leading supporter because of the Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories. Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, which hosts Oak Ridge and the Tennessee Valley Authority, has now picked up the mantle. But Tennessee is much more involved in the auto industry and there is no “nuclear state” to match the half-dozen coal states.
Well then, what about the 104 reactors that operate around the country? Don’t they generate some political support? The average reactor employs about 650 people and is extremely popular in its home territory. Bisconti Research has found that support for nuclear increases to around 85 percent in communities that host reactors. But this support tends to be highly localized and reactors create little ancillary employment. Replacing the fuel rods, for instance, requires only six tractor trailers arriving once every 18 months.
Illinois gets almost half its electricity from nuclear and even Barack Obama was known to say a few nice things about it while he was Senator from Illinois. But most states with large nuclear complexes are equally committed to coal. Even in a state that is highly dependent on nuclear, the work force is so small as to be inconsequential. Vermont gets 60 percent of its electricity form Vermont Yankee, yet its efforts to close down the reactor have generated very little pushback. Vernon, the tiny town of 2,000 that supplies all this energy, is 100 percent in favor of keeping the reactor. But its interests are completed swamped by 623,000 other Vermonters who only get clean, cheap energy from nuclear and think they can do the same by covering the green mountains with 45-story windmills.
The only place where nuclear has built a true constituency is in the South. This is partly because of the many military veterans in the region, since a large portion of the nuclear workforce has come up through the Nuclear Navy. South Carolina is probably the most pro-nuclear state in the country with Georgia and Tennessee also strongly in favor. It is no accident that the four new reactors licensed for construction will be built in Georgia and South Carolina. Areva is also completing its plutonium recycling plant at the Savannah River Site. But all these states are pretty much locked up for Republicans and have very little impact at the national level.
So nuclear’s weakness is plain to see. It does very poorly at creating the kind of widespread employment that builds political constituencies. It is only good at producing energy.
Monday, August 13th, 2012
By William Tucker
One of the most overlooked phenomenona in history is the way nations and cultures become prisoners of their own bureaucracy. Bureaucracies have a tendency to reduce every human activity to arcane rule-making so that things finally become so complicated and obscure that nobody can do anything except debate the meaning of words – which is their specialty.
America now seems to be duplicating this historical process in the management of nuclear power, particularly in the exercise of going through endless bureaucratic procedures over something called “waste confidence.”
If we really wanted to have confidence that our nuclear spent fuel was not piling up somewhere in potentially dangerous amounts, there would be one thing to do with it – reprocess. France undertook reprocessing in the 1970s and now has a complete fuel cycle. All its high-level waste produced by 40 years of providing 75 percent of its electricity with nuclear energy is stored beneath the floor of one room at Le Hague.
Why don’t we reprocess in this country? Because in the 1970s, a New Yorker writer named John McPhee and an eccentric former bomb designer named Ted Taylor met at Princeton and produced a book called The Curve of Binding Energy, which scared the pants off everybody about reprocessing nuclear material.
Taylor had designed the Davey Crockett and several other tactical battlefield nuclear weapons developed by the Army in the 1950s and 1960s. After retiring to Princeton and becoming exposed to its anti-nuclear culture, he became very remorseful. He also convinced himself that if he could build a nuclear weapon in his garage, anyone else could to it, too. They would do this by stealing plutonium from any of the reprocessing centers that were then on the drawing boards or in the early stages of operation. “I think we have to live with the expectation that once every four or five years a nuclear explosion will take place that will kill a lot of people,” he told McPhee. “I can imagine – in the worst situation – hundreds of explosions a year.” Taylor predicted this carnage would begin around 1990.
All this was taken to be gospel by the growing anti-nuclear movement and before you knew it they had convinced President Jimmy Carter that such a catastrophe was imminent. He responded by outlawing nuclear recycling on the premise that we were saving the world from nuclear weapons. Go to any nuclear conference and you’re likely to hear a presentation from some laboratory somewhere announcing that they have found a new recycling pathway that avoids isolating plutonium and that soon we will be able to shake the curse of the rogue nuclear weapon. There are people all over Washington who will still tell you that if we were reprocessing, every third-rate dictatorship in the world would have a bomb. Call it “delusions of grandeur.”
France went ahead with reprocessing and nobody has ever stolen any of its plutonium. There wouldn’t be much reason to do it. North Korea built its own reactor and started selling plutonium around the world to any rogue nation that wanted it. Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan of Pakistan did his share in helping spread the technology. All this is very unfortunate and requires all kinds of diplomatic measures but it has nothing to do with whether we reprocess here at home.
So instead of reprocessing, we have spent the last 40 years casting around for what to do with the stuff. Yucca Mountain was a good try but Harry Reid was able to handle that. Areva has offered to build an entire reprocessing complex in this country duplicating what it has done in France. Like any major manufacturer that once dominated the market but is now on the downhill side, however, we have developed a “not invented here” complex. “No thanks, Areva, we don’t you’re your help. We’re going to figure something out for ourselves. Just give us another 50 years.” So instead of actually doing something to treat spent fuel, all the efforts in Washington have become concentrated on something called the “Waste Confidence Rule.”
If you’ve ever spent time in Washington, you know that every time the staffs of two Congressmen meet over an obscure issue there will be a battery of lawyers and policy experts on both sides of the table thoroughly schooled in the minutia of the issue. That’s the way things stand now with the Waste Confidence Rule. Nobody has any plans to develop a technology for dealing with spent fuel. Instead the issue has become whether the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can have enough confidence that the stuff can sit around in spent fuel pools and dry cask storage for another 80 to 120 years. If the NRC has “confidence,” then it can go ahead with licensing and building nuclear reactors.
Of course all this is red meat to anti-nuclear groups. They see the opportunity for a “stuff the toilet” strategy. If they can blockade every possible strategy for dealing with spent fuel, then they can stop new construction and maybe even force some older reactors to start shutting down. A Waste Confidence Rule requires an Environmental Impact Statement and what are EIS’s for except to offer an opportunity for lawyers and policy experts to comb through them looking for opportunities to challenge them in court? And so a bevy of anti-nuclear groups plus a few states such as New York and Vermont that are trying to close reactors have gone to court. In June the D.C. Court of Appeals, notorious for its liberal stands, granted the petition and overturned the NRC’s adoption of the Confidence Rule last year. Last week the NRC said it will halt all new licensing and relicensing operations until it can draw up a new IES. That could take about ten years. Anti-nuclear groups were celebrating. "This decision forces the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to take a hard look at the environmental consequences of producing highly radioactive nuclear waste without a long-term disposal solution," said Geoffrey Fettus, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
But the irony is that many pro-nuclear enthusiasts are hoping the decision may work to their advantage as well. They say the court decision could force the NRC to go back and revisit the rather dubious maneuver by former chairman Gregory Jaczko in single-handedly ending the Yucca Mountain effort, obviously at the behest of his mentor, Majority Leader Reid. Jaczko is now gone and several other states are contesting the NRC decision, this could be an opportunity to reopen the whole issue.
One thing that is not going to be re-examined in all this, however, is our even more dubious decision to abandon reprocessing in the first place. Canada reprocesses, Britain reprocesses, France reprocesses. Russia is offering to reprocess the entire world’s spent fuel and sell it back as new fuel. As a puzzled New York Times reporter commented in 2010, “The Russians have a peculiarly high comfort level with all things nuclear.” Before Fukushima Japan was reprocessing, although they have now run into a stone wall with all things nuclear. At this very moment, we are trying to tell South Korea that it cannot reprocess its spent fuel – even though they are now on the verge of surpassing us in the technology and are becoming one of the leading reactor developers in the world. Our argument is that we are “preventing nuclear proliferation.” If we allow the Koreans to reprocess, they may develop a nuclear weapon – like North Korea next door. The Koreans complain we are “treating them like a bunch of criminals.”
And so the argument about “waste confidence” continues. One thing we can be confident about. Twenty years from now, we’ll have more lawyers and “policymakers” crossing the “i’s” and dotting the “t’s” of a Waste Confidence Rule than we’ll have engineers trying to solve the problem.
Thursday, August 9th, 2012
By William Tucker
Two weeks ago, Dan Henninger of The Wall Street Journal wrote about how under the Obama Administration the country is really splitting into two economies, one public, one private. More and more the government is trying to replace private markets in the decision of what gets built, when and how.
Little did he know. As if on cue, the Administration this week announced it will be starting a full-scale initiative to build wind and solar projects on federal Western lands, with contributions coming from both the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Defense. The Pentagon’s contribution will be 16 million acres. In case you’re keeping score, that 25,000 square miles or the size of West Virginia. Who knew they owned that much? Yet the truth is, if you’re going to build wind and solar you’re going to that much space because both are hugely dilute and can’t be scaled up except by occupying more land.
Although landowning and private property have been foundation of American democracy since the time of the Revolution, in fact there huge amounts of land still belong to the government – much more even than in a place such as the United Kingdom, where large tracts are still owned by “The Crown.” Things began to change in this country around the beginning of the 20th century. Before that, the Homestead Act, adopted under Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War, had put land west of the Mississippi in the hands of small farmers and property owners. Settlers were promised 160 acres if they lived on the land for five years and made improvements. As riverbeds lands were exhausted, the allotment was increased to 320 acres in 1909 to encourage dry land farming. With this acreage went the mineral rights.
After 1900, however, Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot became concerned that people were exploiting forest and mineral resources and decided to halt the giveaway. The National Forests were created in 1905 and after 1916 homesteaders were no longer given the mineral rights to their land. All the unclaimed lands were retained by the General Land Office, which merged with the Federal Grazing Service in 1946 to become the Bureau of Land Management. When the Homestead Act was finally terminated in 1934, it had granted 420,000 square miles or1/10th of the United States in to private hands. But the amount of land in the National Forest Service was 360,000 square miles, and the BLM retained another 400,000 square miles, meaning more than half the land west of the Mississippi is still owned by the federal government. Moreover, the BLM also retains the mineral rights to a remarkable 1.1 million square miles, about 30 percent of the entire U.S.
This continued federal ownership has created considerable conflict. In western logging areas, for instance, private ownership was originally granted to the railroads in a checkerboard pattern to prevent the accumulation of contiguous territories. This pattern still exists and assures that any effort to develop forest or mineral resources must take on the federal government as a partner. The Forest Service was fairly cooperative until environmental groups gained control in the 1970s. Then and logging was slowed and eventually brought to a halt in Oregon and Washington by the spotted owl controversy. Federal ownership of oil and gas rights has proceeded in a similar way, once proceeding at a rapid pace but slowing to a crawl or even stopping altogether as the influence of environmentalists rises and falls in the government. As has often been noted, natural gas fracking never would have gotten off the ground in the U.S. except that most of the reserves are the eastern half of the country where private ownership predominates.
Now the tables are turning. Whereas most of the pressure from environmental groups has been toward preventing the development of Western lands, now these seemingly endless tracts are being regarded as a field of dreams for environmentalists to carry on their experiments with wind and solar energy. Last week President Obama proudly announced seven major projects on Western lands. The largest will be a 3,000-MW-capacity wind farm covering 350 square miles of Wyoming. The others will include a wind farm in the Mojave Desert and solar complexes in California, Arizona and Nevada.
All these projects will suffer the intermittency problems that plague wind and solar energy everywhere. They will create surges and voltage drops that destabilize the grid. (Some solar plants are now developing thermal storage that can carry them through a few hours of the night, but this reduces their overall capacity.) These projects will require hundreds of miles of transmission lines to bring them to areas where electricity is consumed. And the electricity they produce will be ridiculously expensive.
Yet all will move ahead because federal-and-state-sponsored renewable programs are being pursued without any regard for the economic consequences. The electricity they produce will be guaranteed a market at a price that makes them profitable, whatever it may be. As David Crane, CEO of NRG Energy, told The New York Times about California-sponsored solar project his company is building: "I have never seen anything that I have had to do in my 20 years in the power industry that involved less risk. It is just filling the desert with panels.”
So as Daniel Henninger says, we are moving toward two separate energy economies. One will be based on market forces and economic efficiency. The other will be driven by the ideological certainty that renewable energy is the wave of the future and should be pursued at any price. There is little question as to which will make a greater contribution to the nation’s energy budget.
Monday, August 6th, 2012
By William Tucker
When people ask, “Why can’t we build nuclear reactors anymore,” I often point to the Ancient Egyptians and their Pyramids. Egyptian civilization lasted 2500 years but the Pyramids, for which they are most famous, were all built within in the first 500. There seems to be something about a maturing civilization that eventually makes such colossal efforts impossible.
But that didn’t mean the Egyptians stopped building tombs for their Pharaohs, which was the whole purpose. Instead, they settled for more modest crypts like King Tut’s Tomb in the Valley of the Tombs long after Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure had been laid to rest.
That may end up being the story of our nuclear effort. Except for a few outliers such as Vogtle and Summer, we may never end up building the huge 1,000- MW colossi that we managed to erect in the 1970s and 1980s. But it may not matter. Because the future of nuclear may be in the small modular reactor revolution that is quietly taking shape around the country.
SMRs have been around almost since the dawn of the nuclear era. As advocates love to point out, we’ve been building small reactors for the U.S. Navy since the 1950s. At the height of the Cold War we had 400 nuclear submarines prowling the ocean, many of them operating for five years without refueling. Today we only have 70 left but we have added 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, each one the equivalent of a small city. Now the Department of Energy has decided to prime the pump by offering $400 million for the construction of one or two SMR prototypes among the many models that are now circulating.
You could call to this another instance of government research and investment paving the way for private enterprise – “You didn’t build that. Somebody else made it happen” and all that. But somehow with all the government money that has been spent of Navy reactors, the transfer has never taken place. Now the race is on.
Savannah River National Laboratory has signed agreements with NuScale, of Corvallis, Oregon, Gen-4 (formerly Hyperion) and Holtec International to develop prototype of their products at the South Carolina facility. NuScale has just completed the world’s first simulated control room for a complex of 12 of its 45-MW units that form a 540-MW generating station.
Babcock & Wilcox is pushing ahead with its mPower model, launching a fuel technology center in Lynchburg, Virginia that will fabricate and test key fuel components. B&W has also signed an agreement with Akron-based FirstEnergy to explore deploying SMRs across the merchant company’s service territory, which stretches from Ohio to the Atlantic Coast in Maryland. Ohio politicians are talking enthusiastically about making their state the center of SMR development.
And Missouri politicians are gushing over the possibility of making the Callaway site near Fulton the proving grounds for Westinghouse’s 200-MW SMR, a scaled-down version of the AP1000. Westinghouse has partnered with Ameren, which operates Callaway, and the Missouri Electric Alliance to explore siting SMRs throughout the state. It has also formed the NextStart Alliance, which has enlisted FirstEnergy, Exelon, Dominion Virginia, the Tampa Electric Company, the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation and Savannah River to the project. Two weeks ago Missouri Governor Jay Nixon formed a local government task force to assist Westinghouse and Ameren in competing for the DOE grant.
Only one or possibly two of these applications will win the DOE prize but that’s not the point. Once these projects are in motion they may be able to attract funding from other sources. At some point Wall Street may overcome its aversion to nuclear energy once the economic potential comes into focus. Both Ohio and Missouri officials are talking about selling SMRs all over the world.
It’s a still a long, long road ahead. Just to illustrate, Savannah River touts one of its contributions as helping the Nuclear Regulatory Commission develop protocols for licensing SMRs. Right now there’s nothing in the NRC’s playbook for even considering applications. But the promise is there for a long, long nuclear future. After all, once the Egyptians stopped building pyramids they still went on for another 2000 years.
Saturday, August 4th, 2012
August 3, 2012
World Moves Forward with Nuclear Energy
By Edward Davis
The writer is President of the Pegasus Group, a consulting firm
In retrospect, last year’s Fukushima accident looks like a speed bump in terms of the anticipated future worldwide growth in nuclear power.
Last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in conjunction with the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), issued its annual “Redbook’’ which is the agency’s official forecast for growth in the number of nuclear plants and their related nuclear fuel and enrichment services requirements. The IAEA forecast confirms that the world post-Fukushima continues planning on building a record number of additional nuclear power plants worldwide. Currently, there are some 433 nuclear power plants operating worldwide and 61 nuclear power plants under construction.
According to the recently released report, worldwide growth of installed nuclear power generation is expected to grow from the current level of 375 GWe to 540 GWe in IAEA’s low case and 746 MWe in its high case. This represents a growth rate in nuclear generating capacity of 44% to 99% worldwide, little changed from the agency’s previous forecast prior to the accident. Most industry experts have estimated that the Fukushima accident would result in a 10-15 percent reduction in the nuclear power generation worldwide.
The IAEA projections are consistent with other industry and government projections. The World Nuclear Association (WNA) in its reference case projects 614 GWe of net nuclear capacity will be on line by 2030 for a forecasted growth of approximately 44%.
Most of the forecasted growth in nuclear power generation is slated to occur outside the U.S. Currently, the U.S. has approximately 101 GWe of installed nuclear generating capacity and, according the WNA forecast, U.S. capacity grows to 116 GWe by 2030 for only a modest grow of around 15%. In contrast, growth outside the U.S. is projected to grow by 498 GWe, or just over 80 percent!
Worldwide, China has the largest forecasted growth of any country growing from 10.1 GWe in 2011 to 135.7 GWe . This is a grow rate of 1,343% over the period! At this rate, China will have the largest number of nuclear plants and will have surpassed the U.S. in installed nuclear power capacity.
There is a message for U.S. policy makers in the projections of new nuclear power plant additions. The worldwide consensus is that nuclear energy is an important resource for future electricity supply and will be called on to provide an increasing share of generating electricity worldwide. Without a national energy policy that fosters the construction of additional nuclear plants here at home, the U.S. is likely to fall further and further behind the world and therefore will have less and less influence on how nuclear energy is produced and how sensitive nuclear fuel services, like enrichment and reprocessing, are deployed.